Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Watch
by Wang Xiangwei
China Watch
by Wang Xiangwei

Why Xi Jinping’s bid to put ‘power in a cage’ must go to the very top

Coming up with clear rules to govern the members of China’s Politburo – and their families – presents the leadership with one of its biggest tests yet

For centuries, when it comes to official corruption, mainlanders have gone by the Chinese proverb that says “if the upper beam is not straight, the lower ones will go aslant”.

The idiom still rings true as President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) deepens his unprecedented anti-graft campaign to consolidate his power and shore up the legitimacy of the Communist Party by targeting both “tigers” and “flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats. Since the campaign began nearly four years ago, it has netted several thousand officials, including a number of tigers. Zhou Yongkang (周永康), formerly a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee and the country’s security tsar, has become the country’s highest ranking leader to fall.

AZhou Yongkang, the former security tsar, is sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Tianjin in 2015 on charges of receiving bribes, abuse of power, and leaking state secrets. File photo

While mainlanders applaud these efforts, they have good reasons to remain sceptical, not the least because most of the top officials who were investigated or jailed had retired from the previous administrations and wielded little actual power. They were sarcastically known as half-dead tigers.

Indeed, as Xi has vowed to put “power in a cage” of regulations, it is mission-critical that there are effective mechanisms to supervise and govern the behaviour and performances of the country’s top echelon of officials. These are the nearly 380 Central Committee members of the party, and particularly the 25 members of the Politburo – out of whom seven members on the Politburo Standing Committee rule supreme.

China's graft-busters train sights on new round of targets

Of the 87 million party members, this small group wields great power and exercises ironclad control over the country from the government to the military to the legislature and law enforcement.


At the beginning of last year, Xi started to talk about how to do a better job of regulating this group, terming it a “critical minority” and saying it was key to the success of the anti-corruption campaign and continuing rule by the party.

He has promised stricter rules to govern the behaviour of those officials who should be politically loyal, law-abiding and clean of corruption.

For Chinese officials accused of graft, suicide is tempting lure

As a result, the party leadership is set to revise a 36-year-old code of conduct to be approved at the sixth plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee, scheduled for October.

The code is particularly targeted at the 380 members of the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee, according to state media reports.

The aim is to ensure they “lead by example, follow the party constitution and rules, conform to the party’s political norms and disciplines, always remember the party’s mission, and set a good example for party members”.

China's Politburo Standing Committee members (bottom row from left to right) President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli. Photo: Reuters

This is easier said than done because of the nature of the party’s opaque politics, characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability.


While the details and scope of the new code remain unknown, there are already signs of things to come.

Since May last year, the mainland leadership has chosen Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, Chongqing (重慶), and Xinjiang ( 新疆 ) as experiments to introduce tough measures regulating the business activities of the spouses and children of senior officials – the most jarring signs of official corruption and a source of widespread public discontent.

‘China’s Hawaii’ shows President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign has not hurt economy

Since feudal times, it has become a fine tradition that senior officials would abuse their power to aid their family members and friends to make illicit profits, giving rise to the proverb that when a man gets to the top, all his friends and relatives get there with him. The party officials are no exception.


According to the latest rules, the spouses of top officials in those trial provinces and municipalities are banned from owning businesses.

Additionally, neither their children nor their children’s spouses are allowed to engage in business activities in those jurisdictions.

President Xi Jinping leads the Politburo Standing Committee members into Mao Zedong's mausoleum. File photo

The rules may sound tough but their effect remains to be seen.


After all, since the 1980s, the mainland authorities have released more than 20 edicts to regulate the business activities of senior officials’ family members to little avail.

Among the myriad reasons behind the failures, the most important one is that those rules, like the latest ones, appear to apply only to those senior officials at the provincial and municipality levels – most of whom are Central Committee members.

There are no clear rules to govern the family members and relatives of the 25 Politburo members including the seven Politburo Standing Committee members.

‘Political mistakes’, more than graft, led to downfall of Chinese military chiefs Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou

Indeed, over the past few years, overseas media reports about the enormous wealth of the family members of those top leaders have hugely embarrassed the leadership and made a mockery of its efforts to force lower-ranking officials to abide by rules to which it appears exempt.


There have been suggestions that, since Xi came to power in late 2012, the children and other family members of the current and former Politburo members – including the Politburo Standing Committee members – have been under rising pressure to scale back their business activities, with many retreating into the background by appointing representatives, known as “white gloves”, to run investments on their behalf.

Coming up with clear and well-defined rules to govern these 25 people and their family members – the most critical of the critical minority – will be one of the biggest tests to face the Chinese leadership.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper